August 16, 2018 Recycling Written by Nathan Falde
Aluminum recycling
The aluminum recycling industry has set an impressive

standard for other recycling industries to follow. Long-term efforts to promote aluminum recycling and reuse have paid off handsomely, and no product material is more frequently returned to recycling plants (on a percentage basis) than aluminum.

On a worldwide basis, approximately 67 percent of all aluminum cans purchased by consumers are recycled, which makes these cans the most recycled container in the world [1]. To put that in perspective, only nine percent of plastic bottles are currently being recycled, despite the popularity of community recycling programs and the wide availability of recycling containers in public areas [2].

Of course, we might still be drowning in unwanted aluminum, if the people responsible for managing returned supplies weren’t up to the challenge.

The modern process of aluminum recycling is fast and efficient, and that is vitally important since so much of this eminently practical metal is now available for reprocessing and reuse.


Why should aluminum be recycled?

Aluminum may be the most versatile product and building material on the planet.

It is lightweight and highly flexible, but also super-strong when combined with other metals such as magnesium, copper, molybdenum and silicon. It is non-magnetic, has high thermal conductivity, and is extremely resistant to corrosion. It can be easily cast, machined, bent, welded, tapered and alloyed, and it does not degrade with repeated reuse.

In fact, 75 percent of the new aluminum produced since the 1880s is still in use in one form or another [3].

Aluminum is used extensively in the construction, manufacturing, and consumer products industries, to make items large and small.

Aluminum plant

Aluminum plant

Whether you recognize it or not aluminum is all around you all the time, and while other metals have become obsolete aluminum should retain its utility indefinitely.

When you recycle aluminum, you can rest assured it will be put to good use.

Aluminum recycling process

The process of recycling aluminum is tremendously efficient. Only five percent of the energy invested in creating fresh supplies of aluminum is required to recycle the same amount, and because aluminum is infinitely reusable there is no loss of quality once the recycling process is finished [4].

Briefly, here’s how the aluminum recycling process works [5]:

Step 1: Sorting

Materials placed in recycling bins or other receptacles are taken to waste transfer stations or recovery facilities for sorting.

Magnets may be used to separate metals, which leaves aluminum behind since it is non-magnetic.

Step 2: Shredding

After being taken to reprocessing plants, the aluminum is cut or shredded into small pieces to reduce its volume.

Step 3: Cleaning

Using mechanical and chemical process, the surfaces of the aluminum pieces are scrubbed clean, to prepare them for melting.

Step 4: Melting

Scrap aluminum is loaded in bales into high-temperature, high-capacity furnaces, and melted down at temperatures that reach or exceed 750 degrees Celsius.

Step 5: Removal of byproducts

To purify the molten metal, various waste products created in the melting process are removed, either mechanically or through the use of chlorine and nitrogen gas.

Step 6: Creation of aluminum alloy

Aluminum alloys are created by adding metals like copper, zinc, magnesium or silicon to the molten mixture. Alloy formulas are chosen based on the planned uses for the reprocessed aluminum.

Step 7: Compounding

The molten metal is poured out and formed into ingots, which can be transported to aluminum processing or manufacturing plants to be made into new products.

Aluminium rods

Aluminium rods

Aluminum recycling is a relatively simple and straightforward process, but it is nevertheless highly efficient.

Recycling aluminum consumes 95 percent less energy than mining, processing and manufacturing new supplies, and it releases 95 percent lower quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the fresh aluminum production [6].


How to recycle aluminum cans

Recycling bins are everywhere these days, along with programs that offer municipal or curbside pickup. Government entities want you to recycle aluminum and other reusable products, and they do a lot to make it easy for you to cooperate with their recycling initiatives.

But the great news is that if you are ambitious enough, you can actually make money recycling aluminum cans. The price of aluminum is not impressive at first glance (in the United States prices are currently in the 30-50 cent per pound range), but if you collect them from friends, neighbors, businesses, public buildings, and local events you might be able to make a tidy little profit for your efforts [7].

And even if you don’t make a huge profit, you’ll still be supporting recycling programs in your community and setting a good example for others.

Aluminum cans ready to be recycled

Aluminum cans ready to be recycled

Local recycling centers are always paying for aluminum, and if you aren’t sure where to find recycling centers you can do an online search, check the yellow pages of the phone book or call local government offices to see if they can help.

One of the interesting things about aluminum cans is how quickly they can be reprocessed and reused.

Assuming a 100 percent recycling rate, cans that are melted and converted from ingots to rolled aluminum sheets can be re-manufactured as cans and returned to store shelves six times in a single year [8].

Interesting facts about aluminum cans

Here are a few facts about aluminum cans that may amaze and astound you—or at least make you think:

  • Approximately 200 billion aluminum beverage cans are purchased by consumers around the world each year [9].
  • While two-thirds of the world’s aluminum cans are recycled, 65-70 billion aluminum cans are discarded as waste on an annual basis. In the United States alone, $1 billion worth of aluminum cans are thrown away each year [10].
  • Making one aluminum can from scratch uses as much energy as making 20 from recycled aluminum [11].
  • The turnaround time for a recycled aluminum can to be turned into a new aluminum can is just 60 days [12].
  • The typical aluminum can contains 68 percent recycled aluminum, and this reduces the total energy needed to produce new cans by 50 percent [13].


Can aluminum foil be recycled?

Aluminum foil can be recycled, but to be sure recycling centers will accept it you should clean it thoroughly before taking it in, scrubbing away any meat, sauce or other food remnants that might be clinging to it.

Aluminum foil

Aluminum foil

The foil should be removed from disposable plastic containers, corrugated tubing, or any other materials it might have been attached to, and after the foil has been separated it should be balled up for easier handling.

The above recommendations also apply to aluminum baking trays and pie pans, and any other aluminum items used for food preparation.

Unfortunately, the recycling rates for aluminum foil and aluminum food pans is nowhere near as high as for aluminum cans, and that is a situation you can help to rectify.

There is no such thing as too much recycling

Each year, the global aluminum recycling industry prevents the release of 170 tons of greenhouse gases into the planet’s atmosphere [14].  Furthermore, the recycling of one ton of aluminum reduces energy consumption by 14,000 kilowatt hours, prevents 40 barrels of oil from being burned, and saves 10 cubic yards of landfill space [15].

These are impressive and important numbers that tell you all you need to know about the utility of aluminum recycling. Even though 75 percent of the aluminum ever produced is still in use, there is plenty of potential for improvement, and that is where your commitment to recycling the aluminum you purchase could help make the decisive difference.